As coronavirus infection rates and death tolls soar, and the closing of businesses around the nation cause record-breaking unemployment rates across the United States, members of Congress and the White House struck a deal on a $2 trillion dollar emergency relief package, which passed Congress March 27. The bill is Congress’s third package in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is the largest rescue package in American history.
While the bill makes some progress on important issues, such as pandemic unemployment insurance and health care, it fails to ensure that every family who needs paid sick days and paid family leave has them. As Julie Kashen and Dr. Jamila Taylor have written, it is imperative that Americans are able to stay home to stop the spread of the virus and care for themselves and their families—without sacrificing their jobs and financial security. The Families First Response Act (H.R. 6201, or the FFCRA), signed into law on March 18, took the critical first step of guaranteeing two workweeks of emergency paid sick leave and ten workweeks of emergency paid family leave to people working in businesses with fewer than 500 employees for many COVID-related purposes, such as quarantines and recovering from the virus.
As the third COVID-19 response package (H.R. 748) heads to the White House to be signed by the president, we examined how it compares to the emergency paid sick and family leave plans laid out in H.R. 6379, the Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act (FFCRA), which is the House’s proposed third COVID-19 relief package, and in the Providing Americans Insured Days of Leave Act (S. 3513, the PAID Leave Act), another proposal introduced earlier this month.
The bills differ around a number of issues that must be addressed to ensure all people receive comprehensive paid leave at this time of dire need. Among those we highlight here:
First, all workers must be covered, regardless of the size or type of their employer and whether they work full-time or part-time. The FFCRA and the third relief package only mandated businesses with less than 500 employees to provide the emergency paid sick and family leave—meaning those people working for the largest corporations would be out of luck. In fact, with the exclusion of companies with more than 500 employees, Washington Post analysis indicates that just 12 percent of essential employees will receive paid leave coverage under the model in the FFCRA and Senate package. That means companies like Amazon, Walmart, and major supermarkets—all of whom are playing vital roles during this crisis—are exempt from providing their workers paid leave. In addition, FFCRA gives the secretary of labor authority to exempt certain small businesses with fewer than fifty employees as well as certain health care providers. These exemptions are unacceptable given the frontline roles health care workers are fulfilling in the fight against coronavirus. Furthermore, this exemption presents a gender disparity, as women comprise 78.1 percent of all health care workers and 74.9 percent of hospital workers.
Meanwhile, the third relief package also added a new provision that the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has the authority to exclude certain federal government workers—a concerning move, given that the federal government, comprised of 9.1 million workers, is the largest employer in the nation. Responding to these criticisms of leaving out millions of workers, the House proposal expands coverage so that all businesses must comply, and all employees must be covered—which is in line with the PAID Leave Act’s provisions. In addition, each of these proposals smartly covers part-time workers.
Second, all workers should receive a fair wage replacement. The FFRCA, third relief package, and House proposal all mandate that during the two workweeks of paid sick leave, workers who are sick or isolating/quarantining receive up to $511 a day. The three bills also mandate that if caring for a child during the two weeks of paid sick leave and during the ten weeks of paid family leave, workers are paid two-thirds of their normal paychecks, capped at $200 a day. Caregiving should not be valued at a lower rate than self-care. This lower rate will disproportionately impact women, who still face a persistent gendered wage gap—ranging from Latina women being paid 54 cents for every dollar paid to a non-Hispanic white man, to Black women being paid 62 cents on the dollar—are also more likely to be the caregivers. Women of color and immigrant women in particular are more likely to live in multi-generational households, meaning they take on care for elderly family members as well as children and others.
All bills extend the equivalent of these wage replacements to part-time workers, and tax credits to cover leave for gig economy workers and the self-employed. While any wage replacements undoubtedly provide workers with some relief, the PAID Leave Act—with 100 percent pay for seven accrued sick days and fourteen sick days, and 66 percent pay for twelve weeks of family leave—is far more comprehensive.
Third, paid leave must include care for every kind of family and all of the possible reasons people will need paid leave during this crisis. The FFRCA and H.R. 748 limit the definition of family to (1) children who are minors kept home due to school closures or the unavailability of childcare providers, and a vague (2) “individual” in need of caretaking. This is short-sighted. Like parental leave proposals that only apply to mothers or parents in the case of childbirth, this narrow definition of family members who are deemed eligible for caretaking ignores the realities that all Americans face, due to COVID-19 or other factors: the need to stay home and recover from serious illness, to care for elderly relatives or loved ones, those with disabilities, or sick family members who are not children. The House proposal and PAID Leave Act clarify that self-care is covered, as is an expanded definition of family, which ranges from in-laws to family members with disabilities.
Fourth, as the health crisis and economic crisis compound each other, policies must consider the cash flows for small businesses trying to provide leave for their workers. The FFRCA and the House proposal provide paid leave reimbursement through tax credits, while the third Senate relief package makes these into advanced credits that businesses can get up front, and the PAID Leave Act expedites payments to business to cover the cost of leave through the Department of the Treasury.
Finally, these measures need to have a realistic timeline, and now is the time to enact permanent leave policies as well. For the FFRCA and the third relief package, these paid leave policies expire at the end of 2020; for the House proposal, they can be used through the end of 2021 (which the PAID Leave Act extends by one month)—a far more realistic timeframe for a pandemic with no end yet in sight and is sure to have extensive ripple effects in the long-term.
Congress must swiftly act to create the most inclusive emergency paid sick and family and medical leave plans as a part of any future COVID-19 relief packages. Then, as people utilize their much-needed emergency paid leave in the coming months, lawmakers should take heed of what advocates have long been working for: permanent national paid sick leave and paid family leave policies. After all—had these policies already been in place when the spread of COVID-19 hit the United States, Americans would have been in a much better position to stay home, stop the spread of the virus, and care for themselves and their families.
header photo: An ambulance sits parked on the plaza outside the U.S. Capitol March 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Image